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Project of Heart on display at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa

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OTTAWA -

Inside a room at Beechwood Cemetery lies tens of thousands of hand-drawn or painted tiles—a powerful display made in honour of the Indigenous children and youth who went through Canada's residential school system.

"There were over 150,000 children who went to these schools, many did not make it home," said Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

The project is a partnership between Beechwood Cemetery, Project of Heart, the Assembly of 7 Generations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

"Its words and images that are powerful to make you really think," said Mbombo Malonde Kapacala.

All of the tiles were done by students across Canada ahead of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. 

"I would really like them to come away with an understanding as to the depth and the breadth of what Indian Residential schools did to families, to their communities, to their nations," said Project of Heart's Sylvia Smith.

"And that's why Phyllis Webstad's story is so important, why we wear orange," said Blackstock. "When Phyllis showed up at that school, it was a residential school and the first thing they did was give her a number instead of a name and they took away her orange shirt. So it's about bringing that humanity and understanding there's lots of Phyllis'. And that's why our duty to correct these harms and stop the ongoing injustices is so imperative."

Dr. Peter Bryce, who tried to sound the alarm about residential schools more than 100 years ago, is buried at Beechwood in Ottawa. Blackstock said his grave is now one of the most visited. 

"As the national cemetery we have a national voice and it's important to share the stories and the history in a meaningful way," said Nick McCarthy with Beechwood Cemetery.

Many hope the will to listen and learn will go beyond just one day. 

"It’s the intention and the power within the action and words that really set forward the change in history and in the truth," said Mbombo Malonde Kapacala.

The tiles will eventually be housed in a new cultural centre being built in Sault Ste. Marie.

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.

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